Bandits star Dhane Smith chasing coach John Tavares’ championships more than records

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Dhane Smith chuckles while recounting the fool-proof plan he thought he devised to get out of playing on the Buffalo Bandits’ defensive unit to instead focus on offense during his first two National Lacrosse League seasons.

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By tanking on defense, an impatient Smith figured it would force the coaches’ hands to shift him to a scoring role — ideally, of course, playing alongside then-veteran star John Tavares.

Little did the prolific junior scorer, selected fifth overall in the 2012 draft, consider was the coaches providing him a second option — watching games in street clothes — if he didn’t improve.

“They were both old school and hard-headed,” Smith said of his first two Bandits coaches Darris Kilgour, who was succeeded by Troy Cordingley in 2014. “They put it to me pretty straightforward that wasn’t going to be the case, and I’d be sitting in the press box.

“So right then and there, I knew I had to bear down, wait my chance and make the best of my opportunities.”

Bandits stars Josh Byrne, Dhane Smith both MVP finalists

When finally given the chance on offense in 2015, he enjoyed his first of now seven 100-point seasons. A year later, Smith set the NLL single-season scoring and points records with 72 goals and 137 points.

It’s a lesson Smith took to heart in now being regarded as his generation’s top player, and a memory that 11 years later contributed to a change in his outlook, separating personal and team objectives.

The records he has set are now considered secondary. Championships are what matter for the 32-year-old in cementing his legacy at a time Buffalo seeks to defend its NLL title entering a best-of-three final series against the Albany FireWolves, which opens Friday.

“Obviously, I’ve done a lot as far as points and success,” Smith said. “All that legacy stuff, it just has kind of trickled in with those things. I want to be remembered for winning championships.”

It hasn’t been easy for Smith and the Bandits, who lost in the final three times since 2016 before claiming the franchise’s fifth championship — and first since 2008 — with a 2-1 series win over Colorado last year.

This year, a retooled team featuring a mix of youth and veterans overcame a 5-6 start to roll into the final by winning nine of its last 10, with Smith and Josh Byrne leading the way.

While Byrne led the team with 135 points (53 goals, 82 assists) in 18 games, Smith finished with 134, including a single-season league-record 101 assists. Smith’s the only player to top 90 in a season, which he has now done three times.

His transition from scoring to setting up goals, while still playing a role on defense, is indicative of Smith developing into a selfless, all-around player.

“I don’t think he even thinks of himself as the best player on our team,” Bandits captain Steve Priolo said.

“You noticed the difference come about 2018 and 2019, when he was like, ‘I’m ready to start putting this team on my back,”” he added. “He’s a superstar. He doesn’t need to take these hits and risk injury. But he does. … When he’s buying in, we’re all buying in.”

In his first year as Bandits general manager, Steve Dietrich recalled how Smith was considered somewhat of an enigma entering the draft. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, Smith was a raw product and essentially a one-man offensive show on a Kitchener junior team that lacked talent around him.

It helped that Dietrich was from Kitchener and familiar with Smith’s background, which included the family pedigree of being cousins with former lacrosse star Billy Dee Smith. Dietrich credited Kilgour and Cordingley for rounding out Smith’s game in the early stages of his career.

“That kid thinks he’s a superstar offensive player, you cut him off at the knees,” Dietrich said. “So he got humbled a bit and he took the humble pie and ran with it.”

Smith is so good, Dietrich believes the player is entering the conversation of being included among the game’s all-time greats, who are generally regarded as being Tavares, twins Paul and Gary Gait, and John Grant Jr.

“It’s an incredibly hard question and it’s incredibly noteworthy to those four guys and to Dhane that we’re having this conversation,” Dietrich said. “To even contemplate Dhane being up there is pretty amazing.”

Smith has gone from playing alongside Tavares to being coached by him — and approaching several of his career records. One might fall as early as Friday, with Smith six career playoff assists from breaking Tavares’ mark of 116.

“I’m surprised he hasn’t surpassed it, quite honestly,” said Tavares, uncle of NHL Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares. “Records are made to be broken, and mine are dwindling away. But I’m happy to see one of my own players surpass it.”

Smith never envisioned having the opportunity to break any records in 2013, never mind being referenced in the same sentence as Tavares.

“I do enjoy breaking his records just to kind of have a laugh with him about it,” Smith said of Tavares, who won four NLL titles as a player. “But that’s not my main goal. At the end of the day, I need to chase his championships.”

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